Dangerous Audiovisual Aesthetics: Reading The Lincoln Project and Music Video's Turn
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We can't tell if we like The Lincoln Project's (TLP) videos because they capture some previously-unexpressed feelings we have about Trump or because they're just using high music-video aesthetics.
Surely it’s both, but we sense our attraction mostly stems from TLP’s successful meld of sound, music, and image. TLP points to a new mode of political advertising. We don’t want these techniques used against progressives.
This review provides close readings of two ads—”Betrayed” and “Conservative.” Director Heath Eiden himself expressed trepidation about accepting the projects: “These are swiftboat techniques straight from Lee Atwater, the architect of smear.” The mainstream press reflects ambivalence about TLP. Are they grifters? Are they planning a Republican coup? For safety’s sake we want to show TLP’s techniques at work.
These ads came together through proximity and serendipity. One of TLP’s founding members, former Republican presidential consultant Stuart Stevens, has undergone an epiphany about the party’s dark roots, detailed in his new book, It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump. Stevens turned to his neighbor, Heath Eiden, in rural Stowe, Vermont, to direct the clips.
Eiden’s a progressive. After earning a GW journalism degree to freelance in NYC, he moved his family to Vermont to devote a decade to the insightful and revealing film, Dean and Me. 2008 hit him hard. Despite political differences, Eiden and Stevens have long maintained a friendship. (As Eiden notes, Stowe [population—4,437] is a place where you can see millionaires, senators, and working-class people all at the grocery store.) Stuart wrote the ads’ scripts with a collaborator. Dan Barkhuff, an Army surgeon and neighbor, played spokesperson.
TLP produces many rapid, low-budget commercials. Their aesthetics stem from Stevens’s acumen: his small team is well-chosen. Eiden’s Dean documentary reveals his directorial strengths: a quick, frontal, but warm rapport with subjects. Barkhuff excels as a strong character who could beat the shit out of Trump. He’s good for the Republicans who desire strong leadership. “Let’s battle.”
They filmed in a back room of Stevens’s home. The (unplanned) mise-en-scène intertwines masculine and feminine elements: lacy curtains, pottery, and a painting (the last embellished with imagery of women, one Matisse-ian, the other Victorian); antlers and a backyard grill, with a Paul Revere bell on the door handle. Equipment was minimal—Stevens’s ring-light, Eiden’s Canon XC15 camera, and lavalier mic. (Note Eiden’s change in placement between shoots.)
Both shoots took two hours. For the first shoot Barkhuff read the script several times. For the second the text was read in sections, briskly. Barkhuff became more at ease for the second shoot. Notice his leaning to one side, and his pauses and cadences, especially at the end. “Trump is weak . . .” The trumpets here call and respond, helping create a musical entity.
Different editors cut and colorgraded the clips. “Betrayed” is meant to elicit anxiety and it’s graded blue. But with “Conservative,” according to Eiden, the team wanted to denigrate Trump and support Biden. In “Conservative” several elements are graded warmer. Yet the color schemes across videos remain similar. (Is this a TLP house-style?)
For “Betrayed,” Eiden shot Barkhuff from two angles. (Eiden doesn’t follow the 30-degree-rule, but Barkhuff ‘s intense address compensates for this.) “Conservative” was shot from a fixed point, zoomed in or out. The pans and reframings are all from post.
In “Betrayed,” Barkhuff’s footage, interstitial material, and the soundtrack complement one another. A high-pitched, ostinato-like violin line, without vibrato, traces three pitches (3-2-1) with no lower root. (This kind of line usually appears in the bass.) A bass drum announces this line’s entrance. The violin works in counterpoint with our gaze’s focus, which first finds Barkhuff’s eyes, high. Next we’re drawn to the frame’s center, which narrates surveillance, and then to a frame’s lower third. The graphics connect by tracing stepwise lines. (Notice the horizontal red line drawn in real time across the frame. “Betrayed” plays with authority: which element should enter first? The music, the edit and the shot, the graphics, or Barkhuff?) The zoom-ins suggest we’re probing a cover-up. Here, “Betrayed” is omniscient, giving viewers clues; the blood-red and chartreuse pencil markings and the frame’s fuzzed-out areas help us find the truth. The ad breaks into three distinct sections. Rounding the form, the bass drum announces the clip’s end. This ad feels like music.
“Conservative”’s soundtrack is complex. The video breaks into five sections.
(1) We see Barkhuff, who drifts left but inspires trust. A ghostly, hovering, avant-gardish voice (lost!) accompanies him. We sense we’ll rise (a two-tone graphic emerges from the lower right).
(2) Musical and visual agitation: blurry footage from military funerals unfolds, with a soundtrack that co-opts action films’ hustle themes. (Note blockbuster-style swoosh and metal-on-metal sound effects.)
(3) The music shifts to ominous pedal tones: Trumpworld versus America. Color patches isolate parts of people and things. The frame’s borders, blurred and over- or underexposed, render humans as totems, signs, ominous forces. Figures harden into photographic stills. (These touches serve musical functions—varied visual tempi can illustrate music’s rhythmic strata.)
(4) A drive to a more hopeful future. Precise, rhythmically consonant music syncs with the image (revising section 2’s material). Images of Biden hugging individuals or standing before crowds, arms unfurled, suggest an encompassing warmth. An uncanny play with hands surfaces, partly because we can’t see Barkhuff’s.
(5) Biden’s fist on the podium unleashes the trumpets (slotting parts 1, 3 and 5 into a rounded ABABA form), and now we find ourselves. Focalization: the trumpets and Barkhuff mark a contrast—Trump and alienation versus Biden and community—leading to clarity and resolution. The whip-pans shift from red to gold. At the end, Lincoln replaces Barkhuff, suggesting the surgeon is his emissary.
Richard Dyer claims that the intangibles of music, light, color, and physical gesture produce effects and carry meaning, but we don’t have good ways of talking about them. It’s the progressives who embrace education and media literacy—the joys of considering arguments. Hopefully progressives will have the upper hand for a bit. Now we have new techniques. Let’s use them well.
See Carol Vernallis, “Beyoncé’s Overwhelming Opus; or, the Past and Future of Music Video,” Film Criticism, (March, 2017). https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/fc/13761232.0041.105/—beyonce-s-overwhelming-opus-or-the-past-and-future-of-music?rgn=main;view=fulltext